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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Old and new

The first coat of paint on an old patio chair. SG advised me to throw them away and get new furniture. I tried finding something I like online, but I didn't get exactly what I was looking for. Also, there is a joy in reclaiming old things that everyone thinks is past its prime.

The man at Home Depot suggested spray paint for beginners, but I wanted to feel a brush in my hand. It was therapeutic, though it  took several coats for the color to show. Of course, first, I used a fine grit sandpaper to make the surface even and then wiped the dust with a cloth. On a sunny day, it takes about 15-20 mins for the paint to dry to the touch. Make sure you do it in a well-ventilated area.

I spray-painted a table top just to see the finish. Prefer a brush. The flowers are acrylic paint. As you can see, I spilled water on the middle flower. Tried to fix it before I sprayed  the varnish. Maybe it is not a good idea to leave it in the rain, in spite of the top coat. We will see.

P.S. The varnish protected the acrylic flowers through El Niño.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

What is success?

I see talented people systematically exhausting themselves every day. They spend hours at work and come home too tired to engage in anything else. Sure, the pay (or the promise of it) is good, but is it worth giving up everything else for it?

The definition of success changes with age. It meant getting an 'A' in school. There was an examiner who assigned those grades. In life, who does the scoring? How do we know if we are doing things right? I think the greatest mark of success is your happiness. If you are prone to irritation, anxiety, losing focus and are constantly overwhelmed by deadlines, you are not in a good place.

You should enjoy your work. Spend time with your loved ones. Take occasional breaks. Get at least 7-8 hours of sleep every day.Have a balanced diet. Get some exercise regularly. And engross yourself in some creative pursuit that rejuvenates you- at least once a week. An extremely linear lifestyle is heading towards a breakdown you can not foresee.Life is a marathon, not a sprint.

It is especially true in start-up cultures where the first few years are crucial. If you are a small business owner, it is a lot like raising a child. Everything else becomes secondary- your health, your friends and family, your sense of balance.

Take a step back, reduce distractions, strive for efficiency. Don't be Sisyphus condemned to roll a stone up a hill in Hades- only to have to start all over again.

Ask yourself- how well are you meeting the four energy needs:
  1. Physical (sustainability),
  2. Emotional (security),
  3. Mental (self-expression), and 
  4. Spiritual (significance).

Visualize a typical day at work. What are the non-essential tactical duties that you need to minimize? Do you start you day by replying to emails or on phone calls and consequently waste the most efficient part of the day in housekeeping tasks that can be done even when you are tired?

When you don't feel appreciated at work, is it because you are NOT an asset to the organization, in spite of the long hours you pull? Self-awareness is the first step to transformation. Don't keep habits that don't serve you well. Have a plan and work on it. This requires a certain degree of openness to yourself and humility. Not the humility that is covertly aimed at winning praise, but the humility that frees you from the need to project an image that makes you stand above others. After all, the greatest freedom we need is the freedom from ourselves.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Awakening (flash fiction)

I found myself walking on an avenue. There were flaming Gulmohar trees in full bloom. It must be spring. Strangely, I couldn’t remember waking up in the morning. It felt like I had been walking forever. I was going somewhere, but I couldn’t remember where. The street seemed familiar. I had walked here before.

I crossed a soccer field and a school. Then it dawned on me that it was my school! Years ago, I had moved out of my hometown for a job. My parents still lived here. I hadn’t seen them in a while. My father did not talk to me. He wanted me to join the family business, but I wanted a life of my own. There would always be my younger, much wiser brother to carry on the legacy. Now, walking through those old, familiar places I was reminded of it.

Working for someone else wasn’t considered the epitome of success in my family. The radio silence from my father was just his way of negotiation. Sometimes, I talked to my mother. At the end of our conversations, she always begged me to come back. She would say, ’You know your father. He will welcome you with open arms. Visit us just once.’ I always pretended not to hear her.

Today felt different. I don’t know how but I was home. And I was going to meet them. I crossed the bridge over the little river that was a torrent in monsoon. Everything about this place was like that- unassuming until the right time. Then you’d be surprised by the sheer strength of it. I was bidding my time too. I was due for a promotion at work that would be a big break. There was an opportunity for getting a professional degree sponsored by my firm. I could be someone they’d be proud of.

Lost in my thoughts, I must have walked miles. I saw the white metal gate of the home I hadn’t seen in years. It looked a bit rusty now. It creaked always. That is how we knew that father was home. We would rush to our study tables. He would look at us contently. Then he would have a bath and his evening tea. Sometimes, I wished he would come to us and talk. Ask us how our day was. But communication was not his strong suit. Once in a while, when he got high on a good scotch, he told us how much he loved us. I wished he’d drink more so that we could talk more often.

I walked on the asphalt pavement and through the rose garden.There were several varieties: Bordeaux, Autumn Damask, Bella Donna, Sofie. Red, pink, yellow, white, and bi-colored. There were some award winning bonsais. I hated them. I felt that it was cruel to prune, graft, and reduce trees to miniatures. Why shunt the natural growth of a living thing just to appeal to visual aesthetics? Why should something that could grow to be magnificent, be content to grow in a pot? If they could speak, they would protest vehemently.

I walked through the front porch. A money plant grew next to his rocking chair. No one else had the courage to sit on it. I tried sitting on it once when I was a kid. It rocked so fast, I was almost thrown out of it. It was like a throne that would accept only the worthy king.

I could hear a whimper, like some ancient pain, afraid to cry loudly. It was as cold as a tomb inside. I saw my mother weeping. My younger brother was crying too. I had a sense of unease.I touched my mother lightly, but she seemed unaware of my presence, engrossed in her grief. For once, my father did not look away. He kept staring at emptiness like he had sensed an invisible presence. I sat down on an empty chair and waited for someone to speak up.

My maternal aunt and her husband rushed into the room from outside. She hugged my mother and broke down too. Then she took my mother away to her bedroom, and the men were left in silence. Uncle always had a way with words, but not today. The anguish seemed sacred and necessary.

After what seemed like hours, he asked my brother: When did it happen?
My brother replied: In the morning, on Mumbai-Pune expressway. A truck container fell over; he died on his way to the hospital.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Briddhasya taruni bharja (বৃদ্ধস্য তরুণী ভার্যা)

Yesterday, a 50-year old Tunisian man drove our cab from San Francisco airport to home. Among other things, he told us that he married a 28-year old girl in his native country in May. I congratulated him a bit too soon. He lamented how ungrateful the new generation is. He sends $1,000 each month to his new bride (which is almost 2000 in Tunisian Dinar, more than a PhD earns in his home country), but she never thanks him. If he sends her an iPhone 3, she asks for an iPhone 6. Last time, she wanted a $250 jeans from True Religion. Her extravagance has led him to have second thoughts about bringing her to the US. He opined: 'Now she spends $1000 a month. Who knows, once she is here, she might end up expending $10,000. I bought her a $10,000 Renault. Next thing I know- she might want a Ferrari!'

The first thought that came to my mind was- does she know that he is just a cab driver and not a Bay Area billionaire? The demands seemed excessive for a 28-year old. You'd expect more maturity. Then I considered what could be the possible incentive for a young girl to marry someone almost twice her age when it is not love. She probably expected to be taken care of like a queen. What followed was rude awakening. I have seen separations that stem from unfulfilled financial expectations. It is especially sad when it happens in a love marriage where you ought to know what to expect. Nothing should come as a complete surprise.

Even a generation ago, some parents obsessed over an NRI groom, with no particular concern for a background check. Whether he is an alcoholic, a gambler, a womanizer, or plain old wife-beater- who could tell? We had a joke in the family that a suitable groom for some parents is an 'onion cutter' in America. But parents ought to make more informed decisions in today's connected world.

My father told me a story that was published in The New York Times some years ago. For fourteen years, a man worked hard to save enough to bring his four sons from Ghana to the US. When he became a US citizen, officials suggested that he took a DNA test to establish the relationship with the boys. But results showed that only the eldest of the four boys was his biological son. Now besides struggling to accept that his wife had been unfaithful and the children he loved as his own aren't his, and he might have to give up on the dream he had been working on for years- he had the added onus to prove that the boys are of his deceased wife. He didn't  want to abandon the kids that weren't his. My father wondered if our friendly Tunisian cabbie might suffer the same fate. I hope not.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

A suitable girl (flash fiction)

The mirth of Fate is strange-
She smiles upon you and makes you suffer.
Sometimes, She makes you suffer to see you smile.

My mother wanted to get me married ever since I completed my undergraduate degree. I think she wanted to get me married ever since I started ovulating at the age of thirteen. Freshly graduated, I started a job as an Associate in an e-publishing house. She thought it was of dire necessity that I followed the Laws of Nature, took a husband and bore a child as any proper Bengali girl should do at the ripe age of 22. Sometimes, I wondered how she managed to wait for so many years. Maybe because my father was sensible enough to prevent her from performing her maternal duties. He insisted: Let her finish her education first!

My education was far from complete. But I had a break-up with my long-distance boyfriend. It had meant nothing more than late night phone calls and an elephantine bill at the end of every month. Nevertheless, it gave my mother an excuse to pursue her sole purpose of existence: to get me married to an agreeable Bengali boy.

Surely enough, she used all her social contacts-  the woman who picked trash, our amused neighbors, her concerned colleagues. One of the interested parties was her junior at work. She had a nephew on the side of her in-laws, who was about four years senior to me in school. I knew him by name and vaguely remembered his face. My mother knew that I had only one demand- my husband should be socially presentable. He need not be handsome if he knew how to groom himself and how not to spit when he spoke. Fresh out of heartbreak, your expectations from yourself and your life is lowered dramatically.

My mother judiciously conveyed my secret desire to her colleague who promised to take it up with her in-laws. The guy was a Software Engineer, working in Bangalore, like most other good boys from our town. It was nothing exceptional, which was good. I wanted a man in my life whose goodness moved me. Not the size of the bacon he brought home. Plus, I always knew I’d be a working woman. Together we could always have enough. I found myself wondering- what if he were the one for me? Wouldn't it be a riot if it was someone I knew but had never thought of that way? I let myself dream a little. The kind of romantic thoughts only a girl in her early twenties can imagine: We would travel the world together. Have a charming little house. Maybe a dog- a Labrador preferably, chocolate-colored probably. We would call him Mr. Brown.

It was the little details that gave me joy. My chain of thoughts halted when I learned that they wanted an ‘Engineer girl.’ I wanted to ask why they hadn’t mentioned it before. Of course, it was a sham. I realized it when I heard he was getting married to a woman he was working with.

Fair enough, if it was what they wanted. It wasn’t a rejection in the real sense, but I felt it was a bit too much for me to handle in one year. I snubbed all my mother’s future efforts and started preparing to take GMAT for an MBA degree in the US. In the meantime, I started talking to someone who lived in the same city in East Coast where I applied for B-school in the fall semester of the following year.

My scores were decent, and I had a good feeling about my admission. For a while, at least, my mother was more excited about my prospect of going to the US than about my prospects of marriage. I always said to her, 'Let me get established, have a robust career. I will find someone to get married.'

This time she only said, 'Do not wait too long.' Then she lectured me about the various benefits of using contraception, the relative advantages and disadvantages of using the pill or prophylactics if I decided I couldn’t wait till marriage. I wanted to tell her they taught this stuff in Biology class in school. But her energy was so vigorous that I thought it was better to let her spend it talking than let her try something even more dangerous for my well-being.

I graduated a valedictorian. I have a job that pays me more than a lot of guys earn back home or even in this country. Though I never mention it, I am secretly proud of the fact. I feel I have done something I can be happy about, even though, by no means have I arrived.

The boy from my B-school town finished his doctorate. We dated for a few years before we decided to get married. My mother was beaming with joy on the day of our reception. Her fear that I was a lesbian bowed to celibacy or secretly married to my butch proved unfounded.

Before I suffered the horror of hearing about the birds and the bees and circle of life, my husband stole me away after the reception for our Subho Ratri. Our bed was a sculpture of flowers. God! Some people sure know how to make a big deal out of a wedding! All I wanted was a quiet ceremony with close friends and family. But thousands of invitations were sent out and accepted.  My jaw hurt from smiling at strangers I didn't know from Adam and would probably never see again in my life. After my mother-in-law had chased everyone out of our bedroom and my husband had bribed every distant cousin to stay away for the rest of the night, we retired to bed. We concurred, 'Thank God it is over!'

In a few days’ time, we were back in the US and had resumed work. We were happy together, and marriage didn't seem like such a bad idea after all. In fact, I would now recommend it to others. Fast forward a few years, someone messaged me on Facebook,"Humans of New York is a good page. I started following it from your likes." It was him! The-senior-I-was-supposed-to-marry-whom-I-didn't and was better off for it because I probably wouldn't have considered getting a professional degree if I had married too early.

I was not even sure if he knew about me.

P.S. A word of advice to all the Mrs. Bennet version of Bengali mothers: মেয়েকে ভাল পাত্রী নয়, ভাল ছাত্রী করুন।